Mossberg: a vanishing computer

Once technology has been bothering you. Soon they will become almost invisible.

Walt Mossberg - a well-known journalist, from 1991 to 2013 led to The Wall Street Journal, a weekly column devoted to technological innovations, and then for several years continued it in the publication of The Verge, where he was also the chief editor.

This is my last weekly column for The Verge and Recode - and the last column anywhere. I wrote articles almost every week, starting in 1991, first in the Wall Street Journal. At that time I was lucky enough to get acquainted with the creators of the technological revolution and to reflect - and sometimes criticize - their creations.

Now, when I am preparing to retire after this very long gap, which has changed the world, it seems to me that it would be nice to take a look at the consumer technology that emerged during this period and think about what can be expected in the future.

I will begin by correcting the frequently quoted line from my first column, "Personal Technology", dated October 17, 1991 : "The fact is that personal computers are too difficult to use, and this is not your fault." It was so then, and many years later. The interfaces were complex, and most technological products required constant adjustment and repair. And for this, technical skills were needed that most people simply did not need. This whole area was completely new, and engineers did not develop products for normal people with other talents and interests.


But over time, products have become more reliable and easy to use, and users - more sophisticated. Now you can give your iPad a six-year-old child, and with a little help, he will likely learn very quickly how to work with it. This is surprising when you consider that the iPad is much more powerful than any complex PC that I had access to in the 1990s. In addition, hardware and software are rarely so disastrous today as PCs in old times.

Today I would say: "Personal technology is usually easy to use, but if it is not, you are not to blame." Devices on which we used to rely, like PCs and phones, can no longer be called new. They are improved, created taking into account the interests of users and every year they become better and better.

And all the real new products are still too close from the engineers to be simple or reliable. Many people will not be able to connect to the virtual reality system and will not want to wear a helmet. Most do not believe that Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant will in most cases give us an accurate and useful answer. But these technologies are at an early stage.

So: where we are and what awaits us?


Now the world of personal technology is puffing up with opportunities, but few unexpected innovations fall into the mainstream. Therefore, it is time for some strange calm.

A smartphone with support for multiple simultaneous keystrokes, which appeared 10 years ago as the first iPhone from Apple, conquered the world, and has not yet finished improving. He turned into a new personal computer. But this product is already suitable for adulthood, and I doubt that any major improvements are ahead of him. Plates flew up like rockets, but with difficulty prove their need for people's lives. Desktops and laptops have become a simple necessity, part of the furniture .

Loud revolutions in the software world, such as cloud computing, search engines and social networks, are also still growing and developing, but on the whole they have settled down.

Consumer drones and robots are still in their infancy, and in this niche there is still too little practical use.

The biggest event in the world of hardware and software since the iPad, which appeared in 2010, can be considered Amazon's Echo - a smart speaker with voice control, working thanks to Alexa Assistant. It appeared in 2015, and last year it was followed by a similar device for Google Home. There must be others.


But Echo and Alexa are just the beginning. Gendir Amazon Jeff Bezos told me in last year's interview that artificial intelligence is not just at the beginning, but is just preparing to go to the start. And although Amazon does not show the results of sales of the Echo family, analysts' estimates show that, although they are growing quite fast, over the past year more than 10 million of them were not sold. For comparison, even in a relatively weak period, Apple sold 50 million significantly more expensive iPhones in just 90 days last quarter, and the total sales of more common Android phones were undoubtedly much larger.

Google just announced that worldwide every month people use two billion Android-based devices, and Apple announced a year and a half ago that people use more than a billion iOS-based devices. For the most part, these are smartphones, and they are no longer a novelty.

Let's wait

The fact that you do not see the appearance of amazing technical innovations on Amazon, in app stores or in the Apple Store and Best Buy does not mean that the technological revolution has slowed down or stopped. She only took a pause to conquer a new large territory. If successful, the results will be as great, or even more than the first consumer PC in the 1970s, or even the web in the 1990s and smartphones in the first decade of this century.

All major technology companies, as well as companies from other industries and still unknown startups are working on new building blocks of the future. These are artificial intelligence / machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, robots and drones, smart homes, robomobili and wearable electronics.

All these new products have something in common. This is increased and more distributed computer power, new sensors, improved networks, smarter voice and image recognition and software, which is more intelligent and secure.


There are already examples of all these technologies, but they are early, their capabilities are limited, and only enthusiasts will like them. If you compare with what awaits us, it is something like Commodore PET (google it, kids) or these hefty car phones from old movies.

Ambient computation

I think that the result of all this work will be that all the technology, the computers inside all these things, will go to the background. In some cases, they will disappear altogether, and will wait for the activation of the voice, the person entering the room, changes in blood chemistry, changes in temperature, movement. Or maybe even just a thought.

Your home, office and car will be completely crammed with these waiting computers and sensors. But they will not interfere with you, or even will not look like technological devices.

These are ambient computations, endowing the environment with intelligence and capabilities that are not visible to the eye.

It reminds me of a great sketch from Saturday Night Live 2005, where actor Fred Armisen, who plays the role of Steve Jobs, shows an even smaller series of new iPods that are literally invisible to the eye, but can store "all photos that have ever been taken."

A few weeks ago, well-known Facebook researcher Regina Dougan announced that her team was working on using the brain to enter texts and control virtual reality devices. They also develop methods that allow you to “hear” through the skin.

The idea is that even if augmented reality is built into ordinary glasses and adds complex virtual objects to real life, this system will not be perfect if you have to press buttons, use touch controls or say commands.

It is said that Apple has a secret project to monitor the blood glucose level of diabetics with non-invasive sensors, which will allow you to abandon daily tests with needles.

Google changed the entire corporate mission to “AI first” [AI in the first place], and seeks to accomplish tasks based on voice commands with the help of Google Home and Google Assistant, in order to finally arrive at real unstructured communication.

Several small companies are working on recharging mobile devices over the air so that the wires do not interfere anywhere.

It seems to me that in 10 years most of this world of ambient computations will appear, and the whole of it will appear before us in 20 years.

Why is it important

Each of these attempts has the potential to create a new, unrecognizable world. This is a completely new way of presenting technology.

When the Internet first appeared, it was a separate lesson, and you were doing this on a separate piece of metal and plastic called a PC using a separate program called a browser. And even now, when the Internet is similar to an electrical network that feeds many devices, you use separate devices to access it — say, a smartphone. Of course, you can use the Internet through Echo, but it will still be a separate device and you still need to know the magic words to use it. We are still far from the invisible and ubiquitous computer of the Enterprise spacecraft.

Worse, those early computers were constantly interfering with you. These were large objects requiring space and management skills. Even now in the restaurant you can see smartphones on the tables.

The use of computers has been greatly simplified, but they still require attention and care, from charging batteries to knowing when and which applications to use.

Technology is a great thing, but for 40 years it was too unnatural, it was in addition to ordinary life. Those who are working in laboratories are trying to change this situation.

Dark side

Someone who has read this to this place probably already has an aversion to the idea of ​​ambient computations. You concentrate on the prospect of invasion of privacy, compulsive monetization, government wiretapping and the flourishing of hackers. If the FBI could threaten a large company like Apple with an iPhone password, what are the chances of protecting your technology-dependent environment from government invasion? If British hospitals had to shut down due to an attack by an extortionist [extortion virus], would not online attackers be able to lock your home, office or car?

Good questions.

I can only answer that if we are really going to give houses, cars, health and everything else at the mercy of technical companies on an unprecedented scale, we will need much more stringent standards of security and privacy. Especially in the US, it is time to stop dancing around privacy and security and enact real laws.

And if ambient computations become an integral part of our life, just as the results of previous technological revolutions such as wooden beams, steel beams and cylinder blocks did, we need to expose them to the digital equivalent of building and safety standards for cars. For less, you can not agree. And health? Today's standards for medical devices need to be further tightened, but it does not forget about innovation.

The technoindustry, which has long been positioning itself as a violator, should work together with the government to develop these rules. And this may be more difficult than developing the technology itself.


Most of the work on this, at least as far as we know, is carried out in the giant companies that make up the modern techno-oligopoly - Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

But during similar tectonic shifts in technology, oligopolies begin to lose ground. For example, Apple is the largest of these players. All the information suggests that she is working on AR, robots and health issues. But strict and remarkable security rules prevent her from collecting the huge amounts of data needed for machine learning.

Microsoft is still trying to combine its vast experience in software and cloud technologies with a significant hardware business. Facebook and Google-dominated advertising businesses that dominate today may fail at some point. Amazon has so far only one recognized hit from the field of iron - Kindle.

But even if all these oligarchs feel great, and their ranks are replenished with one or two members, the country and the world still have the right to ask - is there too much power in them? And if so, how it can be curbed without harming progress.


Over the past couple of decades, we have become part of a great trip, no matter at what point you sat on a roller coaster. It was great, it enriched and changed us. But the whole point was reduced to objects and processes. Soon, after a slight deceleration, the attraction will begin to accelerate even faster, only this time the essence will lie directly in the sensations themselves, and the way in which they are formed will recede into the background.

For me, as a lover of gadgets, it's a little sad. But as a person who believes in technology, this is extremely exciting. I will no longer write reviews of any new products, but you can be sure that I will closely follow the next turn of the wheel.

Thank you for reading. Mossberg finished.


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